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The UNFPA Is Thriving as It Praises an American Who Kept US Interest Alive

In Bamako, Mali, women waiting to have their babies vaccinated. Jane Roberts, a Californian who personally helped fund-raise millions of dollars for the UN Population Fund, traveled to Mali and elsewhere in West Africa to understand women’s needs better in the region. UNFPA

In the rubble of what’s left of American commitments to international organizations, one survivor is doing well. The United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, the perennial target of Republican politicians and presidents since the 1980s, is thriving.

Arthur Erken, director of communications and strategic partnerships at the Population Fund, said in an interview with PassBlue that the willingness of countries around the world to increase funding after the United States withdrew its financial contributions “is a measure of the broad support for what we try to do.”

“Yes, to a large extent it’s funded by Europeans and Canada, but also other countries,” he said. “So we have more money than we have ever had in the history of UNFPA.”

At an international summit-level meeting in Nairobi in November 2019, marking the 25th anniversary of the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development, countries pledged financial support totaling about $1 billion, with the private sector promising to mobilize another $8 billion for reproductive health and gender equality.

All contributions to the UN Population Fund are voluntary, from money totaling about $370 million for core agency functions to hundreds of millions more for specified programs that vary annually.

The withholding of American contributions under the Trump administration, as demanded by the powerful anti-abortion lobby, has apparently not done as much damage as many people feared. But it does underline how American aid has become a recognized tool of domestic politics, not a mark of international good will.

Abortion is not part of what the agency does or advocates, despite what critics say every year. Rather, it is the largest organization in the world, working in at least 155 countries, providing family planning and maternal health.

“I think what is unique to the US is that some of the issues we are dealing with are strongly centered in politics that you don’t see so stark, if you will, in many European countries or other donor countries,” Erken said.

The Population Fund also benefits from the example and influence of a retired French-language teacher and tennis coach from Redlands, Calif., Jane Roberts, who devoted two decades to a grass-roots campaign to ensure that Americans would privately support an agency created at the behest of the US in the 1960s.

“The model of Jane has been really inspiring,” Erken said.

Roberts in Bamako, in a striped shirt, left. Her campaign, led also by Lois Abraham, a New Mexican, was called 34 Million Friends of the Women of the World. It raised $7.8 million for the UNFPA after the US began withholding funds to the agency. COURTESY OF JANE ROBERTS

Roberts says that the idea for her campaign popped into her head at 3 A.M. on a sleepless night in July 2002, after the George W. Bush administration had announced formally that it was withholding $34 million that Congress had allocated for the agency. The decision was made on spurious reports that UNFPA was backing programs in China that included forced abortions, which even the State Department knew was not true.

Roberts had no previous involvement with the UN agency except that she knew of its work in developing countries and donated to its American support group.

“A brainstorm came to me as I lay awake, anger simmering in my brain,” she wrote in a memoir several years later, titled “34 Million Friends of the Women of the World.” [Now available as an updated PDF on www.34millionfriends.org ISBN 1-889409-34-0]

“Why not, I said to myself, ask 34 million of my fellow Americans to chip in $1,” Roberts wrote. In an interview with PassBlue earlier this year, she said that at the same time, a lawyer from New Mexico, Lois Abraham, had been asking the Population Fund if it could accept private donations. UNFPA connected the two women, and an organization they named 34 Million Friends was born.

With staff support from the UN Population Fund, the two women set off to see the work of the agency in the field, Abraham to Nicaragua and East Timor and Roberts to Africa, particularly Francophone countries of the Sahel.

Roberts had lived in France, first when her father, an English professor at San Diego State University, took his family with him on a sabbatical year in Grenoble, during her sophomore year at San Diego State. Undeterred, she signed on at Grenoble University instead and earned enough credits to return to the US as a college junior.

In Grenoble, her parents stayed in a hotel while she lived with a French family. “I studied French like crazy and even had a French boyfriend,” she told PassBlue. “You learn French fast that way.”

Later, she returned to France for a master’s degree in Paris at the Middlebury College Graduate School in French.

Completely fluent, she could conduct news conferences in French while traveling in Francophone Africa and meeting with women there to talk about their lives and needs.

Money in every denomination was pouring in to UNFPA in New York City — mostly dollar bills stuffed into envelopes, which volunteers from the agency’s staff opened during their lunch hour, recalled Sarah Craven, the director of the agency’s Washington office. The late singer and lyricist Odetta set a poem that Roberts wrote about the agency to music.

Roberts made speeches in scores of American cities, on college campuses and at diverse organizations, while also being interviewed by dozens of print and broadcast media. She was “like the Energizer bunny,” Craven joked.

A few years after launching 34 Friends, Abraham moved on to other projects, but not before her work with Roberts raised its first million dollars, in 2003, and Abraham had given the campaign an early focus — and its first generous grant — to the surgical repair of obstetric fistula.

The condition arises when a baby’s head is trapped in the birth canal, often of a girl whose body is not ready for pregnancy, and the pressure exerted causes holes between the vagina and rectum, leading to continual leakage from both. The girl or woman becomes a pariah in her community; the baby usually dies.

Roberts, now 79, closed the 34 Million Friends campaign in the summer of 2019. By then it had raised $7.8 million. It was a far cry from its initial $34 million goal, but its aims live on in Friends of UNFPA, the agency’s American support group, which receives contributions in its name.

For now, pending a change in the White House after the Nov. 3 election, the US is gone as a funder of UNFPA. But its presence is still felt in the organization.

American members continue to sit on the UNFPA board, and the Population Fund finds support in the US Congress. Nita Lowey, a Democratic party representative from New York and chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ important appropriations committee, has stymied Trump administration efforts to strike the fund from the national budget entirely, even though the money appropriated is never released.

Although Lowey, a 16-term member of Congress, is retiring after Nov. 3, others are acting to restore American donations. Among them is Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat from eastern Pennsylvania who introduced a bill in 2019 to resume funding for UNFPA. She has the backing of several other prominent members of the House of Representatives.

The Population Fund had its best relations with the US in recent years under President Barack Obama, when contributions were paid on time as arrears were cleared. Houlahan, a new face on Capitol Hill, is expected to carry on the campaign if re-elected in November.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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